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Why Zero Tolerance School Policies are Bad for Special Education.

Why Zero Tolerance School Policies are Bad for Special Education.
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Effects of Zero Tolerance Policies in Schools

I will never forget that mom’s face. Never before have I seen a woman be carrying so much stress and worry in her face. I was walking out of a meeting. It was a manifestation determination review hearing for a client. This particular district held them often and called in school board members as was their policy/practice. So I quickly evaluated the situation. The look on mom’s face, a sad-looking teen next to her, and they were in the building on the day when they have manifestation hearings.

I knew why they were there. I said my goodbyes to my client family. Then I walked over to the mom and quietly said, “Does he have an IEP?”

She looked up, surprised, and nodded yes. “Are you here for a manifestation hearing?” Again she nodded yes.

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“Do you want some help?” She got tears in her eyes and nodded again. “Let’s go,” I said, motioning for her to come out front with me.

She quickly gave me a rundown of the situation. Her son, who does have an IEP, had a Benadryl in his pocket. It is on record at the nurse’s office that he has allergies and that he is to go there when he needs a Benadryl. This particular day, he just forgot to take it in the morning and it was in his pocket. That afternoon, he found himself doing some physical horsing around with friends, and when school officials patted him down, they found the Benadryl.

A Zero Tolerance Policy + a Special Education Student=Failure on all Sides.

Enter in: a zero-tolerance policy on kids bringing drugs of any kind to school. There is absolutely no doubt in my mind, that had I not been there on that day to support and help mom, he would have been expelled.

He’d be just another 15-year-old kid with ADHD kicked out of school because of a zero-tolerance policy. Thankfully there were so many egregious errors as far as following his IEP, behavior plan and the discipline policy that the school district backed down and the story had a happy ending.

But not all do. If I hadn’t been there, he would have been expelled and likely without a job, a GED and probably in prison. That’s how these stories often end.

The following is a guest post from my friend Blake. Blake was very humble in her bio. What she didn’t mention is that worked with her state legislators to develop and write legislation that would ultimately eliminate zero-tolerance policies in PA schools. You can see that bill here. She also is a member/contributor to a state commission in PA that is studying zero tolerance policies in education.


Understanding Zero Tolerance Education Policies.

Zero tolerance is defined as “refusal to accept the antisocial behavior, typically by strict and uncompromising application of the law”. Its formal inception began as a result of the tragedy at Columbine in the form of the Guns Free School Act. The thought behind these policies is to “remove the threat” from school.

While these laws were initially created to address guns and other weapons, much of the suspensions that we now see are in response to non-weapon, non-drug and non-physical related offenses. What does that mean for kids in special ed?

It means that they are often being suspended for reasons other than the law’s intention, and for behaviors that are often a manifestation of the child’s disability.

This is why zero tolerance policies don’t work.

  1. First, the students aren’t learning the appropriate replacement behaviors. The consequence isn’t always immediate (often the suspension starts the next day) and it is hard for the student to tie the punishment to the actual offense.
  2. Second, the students are being sent home, which for many is a reward. Maybe school work is hard, and this is a way out (avoidance behavior). Maybe the student prefers to be with a parent who may be home during the school day. Ultimately we have positively reinforced a negative behavior.

In the last 20+ years as results from studies have been compiled it is apparent that zero-tolerance policies do not decrease the severity or frequency of incidents. In some cases, they actually increase the level of incidents.

If Your Child is Confronted with a Zero Tolerance Infraction:

Knows state and federal laws and school policies.

First, know your school and school districts’ codes, regulations and policies. Many districts leave disciplinary responses up to the discretion of the building administrator. This means that, except for those offenses that responses are dictated by law, a school administrator can make the decision. This will be important if you are told, “Well, we have to…do this…”

Read your Procedural Safeguards.

Know your child’s rights, it will help you appropriately advocate for them.

Second, know your child’s rights under IDEA and your state’s codes. Read the regs to know how discipline is handled for students with disabilities. Those currently in the process of being evaluated are also protected. Know what a manifestation determination meeting is, when it should be held, and when it can be held. (Hint-you don’t have to wait for the 10th consecutive day or the 15th cumulative day).

Be Proactive and Offer Solutions.

Third, have a meeting, even if it is not a manifestation determination meeting. What was the behavior? What may have changed with the student? Are there enough supports in place to meet the student’s needs? If the answer is yes, why was there a behavior that resulted in a suspension? Is the current placement appropriate? There are many pieces that need to be thoroughly considered and discussed.

Stay Engaged in the IEP Process.

Lastly, make sure you as the parent or guardian are meaningfully engaged in the process. Stick to the facts, use data to support your opinion and stay child focused. In many cases, you can’t prevent the student from being suspended. However you can advocate for increased or different supports to prevent it in the future. Ask for a functional behavior analysis (FBA) to determine the function/cause of the behavior. Update the positive behavior support plan (PBSP). Suggest some supports like counseling or a “break card.” A break card is a way for a student to take a break if they are feeling anxious, overwhelmed or frustrated. Get any home-based mental health services involved for a well-rounded approach. Get creative. Most importantly, stay child focused. It’s not about anyone’s agenda, personal politics, or the kind of day they are having. It’s about the child and their needs, period.

Thanks, Blake!

Blake Emmanuel has merged a personal passion and professional interest by working with her state representative to abolish Zero Tolerance policies. This passion has grown from her experience as a mother of a child on the Autism spectrum and as an education advocate and school board member. When she isn’t busy lobbying politicians and trying to keep up with her two inquisitive children, Blake enjoys honing her professional DIY skills, finding fresh photography subjects, and staying current to maintain her political junkie status.

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Why Zero Tolerance School Policies are Bad for Special Education.
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